Does UMBC have secret underground tunnels? Why?
—Bennett Moe ’88
Mention the word “tunnels” to many UMBC alums, and you’re bound to get a story.
Often it’s a second- or third-hand tale. A friend of a friend, who may (or may not) have actually been there. Very often, shenanigans will be involved. Or conspiracy theories.
Yes, the tunnels do exist, and they are quite extensive. In fact, a system of utility passageways totaling 6,000 feet hums beneath the campus. Yet, very few people have actually entered them.
“Everybody knows they’re there, but they can’t get in, so it’s very easy for stories to get started,” says Rusty Postlewate, assistant vice president for facilities management, who is one of the few to hold the key that unlocks this campus mystery.
As envisioned in the original blueprints for the UMBC campus, the service tunnels are in essence the central nervous system of the university. Large aluminum tubes encase all of the main utility lines, including hot and cold water, electrical, phone, and fiber optics, for easy maintenance access by facilities workers.
Running directly beneath Academic Row (also known to Facilities Management staff as “196,” or the height above sea level), the tunnels reach from the Administration Building all the way to the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery. Offshoots connect The Commons, the Public Policy and Physics buildings, as well as the Central Plant. And as the campus has grown, the UMBC tunnels have expanded, too, most recently connecting to the new Performing Arts & Humanities Building.
Walking beneath the campus feels a bit like entering another world, with concrete and tubing as far as the eye can see. But touches of UMBC filter through. Near an entrance point in The Commons, a hand-painted tag reads “John ’87.” In another section, a “You Are Here” map puts the twists and turns into perspective.
At a lanky 6 foot 4 inches tall, Postlewate ducks his head to avoid metal tubing hanging from the ceiling of one of the connecting passageways – a reminder of one of the main reasons why most people aren’t allowed down here. With pressurized water of 350 degrees and 13,200 volts of electricity running end to end, it’s just not safe for visitors.
That hasn’t kept generations of alumni from speculating about the tunnels, though. Dive into the archives of The Retriever Weekly, and you’ll find a broad history of student perception of the tunnels – both true and imagined.
An article from the September 25, 1972, issue of the newspaper stated that a “very select group of handicapped students” was allowed to use the tunnel system to travel between buildings located along Academic Row. (This is not currently allowed.) Former UMBC Physical Plant Director Guy Chisolm told the newspaper that other students were barred from the tunnels for insurance reasons, but then added that “we don’t want to give anybody the opportunity to commit any acts of sabotage.”
Why might this have been on Chisolm’s mind in 1972? The interview was conducted a few months after a trial of Catholic anti-war activists (known as the “Harrisburg Seven”) ended with a hung jury that freed the defendants. Among the charges leveled was that the activists wanted to set explosives in steam tunnels under government buildings, and one of the seven defendants was Philip Berrigan, a Catholic priest and the primary organizer of the landmark “Catonsville Nine” action in 1968 where draft files were burned at a Knights of Columbus hall near campus (which also housed the Selective Service).
More often, however, UMBC’s tunnels have been the object of playful speculation, particularly in The Retriever Weekly’s annual April Fool’s Day edition. The April 1, 1973, issue mashes up two bits of campus folklore by describing a “Man Discovered in Tunnel” who turns out to be an escapee from the Spring Grove State Mental Hospital. (Read the article from The UMBC Retriever, 1973) Another parody – in the March 29, 2005, issue of “TEH DECEIVAR” – features the front page headline “Bodies Found In Mysterious Labs Under Hillcrest,” and spins a funny and complicated story involving the police, zombies, and an unidentified man in a tweed jacket.
These days, campus maintenance workers are the primary visitors to the campus tunnels. Even UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, doesn’t have a key, says Postlewate.
Greg Stryker ’97, psychology, recalls his own memories of the tunnels from his work as a maintenance assistant for the Office of Residential Life. “We found all sorts of cool stuff on that job,” he says. “I don’t remember doing anything out of the ordinary… just walking around the tunnels to see where they led,” he says. “Stories were that [the tunnels] were put in so the faculty could escape during a campus riot. [A] funny thought that gained some traction, but they were obviously service tunnels.”
Jay Lagorio ’08, computer science, snuck into the tunnels a few times. And he has the pictures to prove it. “At one point, myself and another student made it our mission to map out everything that was down there and be experts on how the whole university connected together,” he recalls. “We had a variety of ways to get in but the one thing we never found, though not for lack of looking, was an outdoor entrance. The best memory I have was hearing maintenance people walking towards us very, very late at night. We were pretty sure they didn’t know we were there, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to run so quickly or quietly before or since. The next day we heard there had been an electrical problem over the previous night so we didn’t think they were looking for us.”
Several years ago, Postlewate’s crew had to stake out a section of the system near The Commons after food started disappearing in the middle of the night. That free meal ticket didn’t last long, he says with a laugh: “Ah, that’s just students being students.”
— Jenny O’Grady